The toughest part of writing about Andrew Judah‘s Monster is trying to figure out how to explain the thing in genre terms. Is it OK Computer-era rock without the guitars? The Decemberists’ indie-pop having a nightmare? Lushly orchestrated trip-hop? Genre labels aside, it’s a whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments that knit together perfectly under Judah’s careful composer’s ear.
Judah is a highly sought-after commercial composer; you’ve probably heard his work without knowing it. His third album of artistic compositions sets wild, intricate foreground elements on top of cinematic backdrops for maximum immersion. Judah works mostly in minor keys here, building brooding, intense landscapes that build to bursting. “I Know You Know” turns a smooth, cascading guitar line into a stuttering, bewildering footrace; the song culminates in a furious maze of arpeggios surrounded by glitching keys, layered vocals, and complex drumming. It has a visceral, physical quality to it; I can almost feel the sounds happening to me.
“Better and Better” amps up the ominous qualities of the record, starting out with heavy pad synths (although he notes in the liner notes that this might be a banjo played with a violin bow), muted piano, and gurgling bass. This is an album where sounds take preeminence over the instruments that make them: it could be a banjo or steel drums, keys or guitar, bass or keys, electronic or live drums. The performer isn’t important: the fact that the sounds mesh perfectly takes precedence.
Back to “Better and Better”: Judah’s voice is digitally manipulated to sound alien and yet comforting, which is the same sort of tension that Radiohead perfectly captured in OK Computer. But Yorke and co. didn’t try to make that into the eerily joyful soundtrack for a dark carnival, as Judah does here. It’s a profoundly unexpected turn. The title track draws some musical composing tricks straight out of old horror films, with wavering theremin sounds floating uncomfortably above the acoustic guitar before unveiling some of the most delicate, tender work that Monster has to offer.
Judah revels in the abrupt shift; many of the tunes here move from this to that unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s quiet/loud/quiet; other times the tone or mood shifts. Sometimes the time signatures change. “What Now?” draws on a relatively disorienting use of syncopation to throw you off. Yes, he employs a variety of tricks to keep you interested, and it works really well. The biggest element that draws me, however, is how it all hangs together. You can listen to Monster beginning to end without necessarily marking the titles of songs. You’ll definitely look back to see what the names of “Morning Light” and “I Know You Know” are, but you may find yourself feeling that the ballad “Willis” just kinda runs along with “Twitch & Shake” and “Better & Better.” You can enjoy it that way if you’d like–more power to you.
Monster is a dark record, but it’s not a grim or hopeless one. It explores brooding territory without getting overwrought, which is a tough balance to strike. Some albums feel like the songwriter is talking to you; this one feels like watching a movie by a director friend of yours. It’s not impenetrable, and you can see flashes of your friend’s hand, but it’s more about the unique experience of that particular media than the person behind the curtain. Andrew Judah gets out of his own way here, letting the intricate, complex, fascinating songs tell their tales. It pays off in spades.
Kye Alfred Hillig introduced himself to me with the powerful and incredibly diverse Together Through It All in 2013: it powered through a half-dozen discrete genres with ease. This year’s Real Snow honed in on his electro-pop side, becoming an album-of-the-year contender in the process. Then he bought a nylon string guitar, became obsessed with it, wrote a whole album’s worth of voice-and-guitar material in a week and a half, recorded it, and released it two months later as The Buddhist. Must be tough to choose set lists now.
Together Through It All was a series of almost uncomfortably intense vignettes, carefully constructed for maximum emotional impact. The Buddhist is the polar opposite of that songwriting style. Several of these songs have too many words in particular lines to fit the scheme; instead of meticulously rewriting them, Hillig just sings the extra words faster and crams them in. The guitar lines, lyrics, and vocal delivery are paramount here: the vocal melodies, not so much. There are several memorable vocal lines (“Come Play with Me” and “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs” in particular) but that’s not the point of this record. If you want to hum, go for Real Snow. Start with “None of Them Know Me Now.”
But if you want to hear some heavy, heady lyrics, you need to plant yourself on a couch and listen carefully to The Buddhist. The titular character appears to sing many of the songs in first person, identified by particular recurring characters (one named Barbara, another named Sarah). The album can be reverse-engineered into a whole life history of a person, or seen as vignettes from a bunch of different characters. Either way, the poem-like attention to detail in the lyrics of each of these songs is astonishing; there are all manner of little touches to the lyrics (descriptions of things, stray names of people, place names, etc.) that give this an intimate quality. Instead of being intense by being grandiose epics, these songs are powerful because of their lack of pretense. Hillig is just sitting there, picking and singing about a tough life in highly literate fashion. It’s disarming.
Each song could be a highlight in its own way, but “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs” is the most single-like in that it has an obvious chorus, upbeat tempo, and a sort of jaunty mood (sort of because look at that title). “Riverside Park: Devil Mask & Wings” is one of the most emotionally devastating tunes, although “Come Play with Me” is a close second. “Buried a Cop” is a gorgeous tune melodically that splits the difference between the two previous ideas. But I could go on and on.
I believe that you find the core of a songwriter when you take away all of the surroundings. (Nothing against the other sounds or members of the band; I’m a bassist, after all.) Pulling away Hillig’s arrangements reveals something even more impressive than I expected. Instead of becoming an acoustic version of a indie-pop songwriter, he transforms and applies his skills to fit the situation. The Buddhist is a remarkable album, one that has initial charms and grows on you. It requires you to really listen, but you’ll be highly rewarded if you do. Fans of The Mountain Goats, Red House Painters, Damien Jurado, and Josh Ritter will all swoon for this.
The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.
But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.
You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.
The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.
“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.
If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.
Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.
They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.
The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.
Hyper-literate story songs and Dylan-esque prophetic jams take time to write, but there’s high upside to anyone who attempts them. If you get good at that, you’re going to be really good: you have more syllables per line to make melodies with, more lyrical lines with which to be clever and interesting with, and more respect from this little corner of the blog world. Let me tell you about The Weather Machine‘s self-titled record, then.
The Weather Machine (band) comes out of Portland like some miraculous child of The Mountain Goats, Josh Ritter, and Andrew Jackson Jihad. Their 2013 self-titled record features the organic acoustic sound of Josh Ritter, meticulous wordplay similar to John Darnielle’s, and the occasional rambunctious energy that AJJ is famous for. For instance, there’s a three-song arc that revolves around stealing the crown of immortality from Satan himself that incorporates all of these influences into one of the more impressive suites this side of the Decemberists (because of course, being from Portland, there are instruments aplenty).
“Puppet” even starts off with similar picking style to Ritter’s magnificent “Girl in the War,” but turns with the vocal line into a plaintive plea for love. It’s earnest, passionate, and yet calm. “Back O’er Oregon” is even more powerful, again using understatement to convey heavy emotions. The gentle string arrangement, unassuming vocals, and quick guitar combine beautifully in a truly memorable track. “Galaxies!” pairs complex percussion work with an impressively complicated (yet not esoteric or snobby) set of lyrics for another highlight. “Leviathans Get Lonely” has AJJ angst and tempo all over it; you’ll be playing it loud and singing along (“CAUSE THIS COULD BE OUR TIME!”).
But the takeaway, the one you’ll be humming, is opener “So, What Exactly Does It Say?” A once-in-a-blue-moon melody combines with evocative, surrealistic lyrics (a la Joe Pug’s “hymns”) to provide the driving force for a track that features great guitar work, steel drums (?!), and a hypnotic groove that is very uncommon in folk. It might sound like I’m going overboard on this, but I’m not. The Weather Machine is a special album, and if the band can keep the quality up, they’ll be big (and soon).
David Rosales‘ Along the Way is the sort of full-throated, big-hearted alt-country that gets play on Hot Country stations as the authentic arm of their coverage. It’s poignant yet poppy; perky, but not saccharine. The vocals occasionally veer into John Mayer zones, then realign themselves with Zac Brown, then mope sullenly off into David Ramirez territory. It’s the perfect midpoint between rough’n’tumble and (old school) Taylor Swift.
The first half of “Amelie’s Song” is full of swooping pedal steel, pensive banjo, and soaring vocals that tug at the heartstrings; they kick up the pace for the back half and turn it into a foot-stomping barnburner. “Strike Gold” uses harmonica expertly. Rattling train-whistle snare drum patterns appear everywhere.
The songs are most endearing when Rosales fully accepts this role of balladeer-gets-happy: “Slice of Heaven” is a turn-it-up singalong with indelible melodies, while “Too Young to Know Any Better” shows the opposite side by teasing the sadness out of his sound with a mournful melody and lyric. There’s levity in the arrangement, but it’s still a wistful tune. I’m really into dudes with acoustic guitars and pop chops singing (alt-?) country tunes without the giant Nashville sheen, so I’m into David Rosales. There’s still some sheen, but I’m not put off by it. It sells me. I’m sold.
Post-rock can be divided roughly into two arms: the stuff that fits easily on film scores, and the stuff that doesn’t. The former is no less artistically viable (Explosions in the Sky!) than the latter: it’s just an easy way to differentiate the priorities of the band in question. Glacier does not traffic in triumphant earworm melodies. Instead, the band creates fully realized soundscapes that include found sound, spoken word, instruments that sound like air raid sirens, and lots of empty space in addition to guitar and drums. Some post-rock accompanies the movie: Glacier‘s post-rock is the movie.
They’ve dropped two releases at the same time: the 18-minute Black Beacon and the 32-minute Kirtland. The entirety of Black Beacon is one ominous track that sounds perhaps like night during World War II, due to the eerie air raid sirens at the beginning of the track. They move from using the instruments as soundscape tools to a prolonged section of bleak, trudging, stomping, burdened rock that is genuinely towering by the middle. It’s post-rock for people who like post-rock for post-rock’s sake. I know that seems like a self-evident statement, but Glacier is in a whole different ballgame than (IC faves) Lights & Motion: L&M is concerned with beauty, light, and airy arpeggios, while Glacier is concerned with heavy, slow, moody, dissonant things. (Their respective names are also perfect representations of their differences.)
Kirtland is a little peppier than Black Beacon, taking less time to get to towering walls of noise. Opener “You’ll Love It Here Forever” drones not by low-level buzz and hum, but by hammering the same riffs and rhythms for a good long while (like a certain post-metal band with a currently unfortunate name was fond of doing). In short, it’s got way more riffing than the former album. The 21-minute title track of Kirtland returns more to the moody element, dedicating the first minute to no more than four chord strums and some truly evocative wind noises and tape hiss. The careful construction of the background noise (again, like a movie would) sets up a very particular mood that Glacier expands throughout the track. It’s the sort of attention to detail that people who’ve heard a lot of post-rock will really appreciate.
If you’re into moody, dark, heavy, occasionally thundering post-rock, Glacier is ready to help you out.
Is Fleetwood Mac cool? U2 is uncool, and Led Zeppelin seems permanently cool (which is funny, because they were decidedly uncool radio rock in their heyday), but Fleetwood Mac is harder to pin down. Jesse DeConto, lead singer/songwriter of The Pinkerton Raid, thinks Fleetwood Mac is very cool (or at least very influential), as A Beautiful World draws on that swirling, vocals-heavy rock sound for its songwriting.
The title track/opener sets up their basic sound: reverb-laden guitars, dramatic vocals that burst into polyvocal harmonies, tom-heavy drums, dreamy keys, and an evening vibe. It’s not dark, but it’s not sunshine and clouds; perhaps it’s a stroll at dusk through a thick forest. It’s tough to capture the idea of expansiveness and intimacy at the same time, but the marriage of the wide-open arrangement and the tight harmonies gives off a very particular vibe. It’s a great track to name the album after and open the album with; it sets up what The Pinkerton Raid is about and lets you know what you’re going to get more of.
Other highlights include the staccato rhythms and thick guitars of “Just a Boy,” and the ominous, turbulent “Giving Tree.” The latter is a rumination on the beloved Shel Silverstein tale; I’ve always been encouraged by the little tale of sacrifice, but The Pinkerton Raid interpret it way differently. They throw one of their most mood-intensive, engaging arrangements at it, including evocative female lead vocals and strong instrumental performances all around. It’s pretty heavy emotionally, but it’s also a highlight of the record. If you’re into swirling indie rock that mines heavy situations for musical and lyrical inspiration, A Beautiful World will please you.
Today, Independent Clauses has the distinct honor of premiering a stream of The Good Graces‘ Close to the Sun, which comes out September 30 digitally on Potluck Foundation and October 28 on vinyl from Fort Lowell Records. (You can pre-order the vinyl, if you’d like.) But you can hear it here now! So press play and hear the excellent record as you read a review of it.
I think about musical genres a lot, since I have to make a public proclamation of a song’s genre about once a day. Genre has gotten muddied and muddled through crossovers, influences, and incorporations; people no less humongous than Bob Boilen question the usefulness of the whole endeavor. I think it matters; genres have social realities. Saying an album is a singer/songwriter release makes different people interested than if I say it’s an alt-country release. The same goes with indie-pop. But when an album comes along that ties many genres together with elements that transcend all of them, I understand why people just want to throw the whole constraint overboard.
The Good Graces’ Close to the Sun incorporates obvious tonal markers of alt-country (“Cold in California”), indie-pop (“My Own Grace”), and singer/songwriter genres (“Under the Weather”). Just to prove I’m not purposefully making things difficult, those three songs I mentioned are tracks two, three, and four on the album; songwriter Kim Ware isn’t tightly allied to any particular sound from the get-go. By track five, “Something So Beautiful” is incorporating swirling guitars, pounding toms, found sound (a Grandaddy-esque indie-pop move) and alt-country harmonica to create something incredibly attractive that sits completely outside easy classifications. Oy.
Despite the varied genres, Close to the Sun does have an internal consistency. Ware expertly crafts a overlying mood of hard-earned, clear-eyed calm for the release. That’s not something that comes across in a specific instrument or genre: it’s an approach to songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal performance that influences whatever direction the song takes. “Curb Appeal” is a condemnation of a person who shows a false front to the world; the same lyrics and chord progression could have been used for an angry, guitar-heavy rocker or a whirring, keys-led indie-pop song. (Ware chooses the latter, resulting in a charming indie-pop tune.) There are lots of places where this album could go for dissonance and instead goes to resolve tensions, musically and lyrically.
That’s not to say that there’s no grit here; the grit is just written into unusual places, which grabs my attention. “Parts > Sum,” the most ominous and irritated of the tunes here, is a straight-up alt-country tune complete with reverb-heavy lead guitar. But instead of pouring vocal and lyrical fury into the track, it opens with Ware singing, “My God, my God, what have I done? / I have been untrue / My actions have hurt everyone / but mostly they’ve hurt you.” You have to go to the easy-going, open-road vibe of “Cold in California” to get the lyrics that might have fit with an angry alt-country track. It’s a consistent trend: the genre expectations are subverted throughout to take a gentler, even-handed tack. Even closing love song “Before You Go” starts out with a list of things that annoy her lover (a bold move, for sure). But starting there unveils a deeper, more mature love that looks past surface annoyances to the realities of relationship.
Even though the underlying calm and the twists of genre expectations carry through the record, it’s Ware’s clear, strong alto that ties the record together. Ware’s evocative voice can display the careful inflections and intonations of singer/songwriter fare (“A Gain, Again”), sell a tricky mood (the complex emotions of “Cold in California”), or carry a rock-ish tune (“Standing in Line”). Throughout it all, her vocal tone stays warm and open, instead of closed off and bitter. That tone often balances out the disparate sounds and lyrics, deftly tying the parts together. The final effect is that her voice sounds natural in these songs, and that’s an element that will elevate any record.
Close to the Sun is a brilliant collection of acoustic-led tunes across a number of genres. It’s a calm, pleasant record in the sense that watching seas from the shore can be calm and pleasant. It doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening on the surface or below the surface; it means that the overall product comes together in a way that is emotionally impressive, intellectually rewarding, and aesthetically pleasing. Ware has done an incredible job pulling together genre-subverting arrangements and lyrics with beautiful vocals, resulting in an album that is hard to stop listening to. If you’re into acoustic-led music, Close to the Sun should very much be on your to-hear list.
1. “Satelighter” – Telecraze. This Iranian band mashes post-punk vocals and moods with an whirring, glitchy, crunchy electro backbeat.
2. “Blauer Tag” – Mowe. I love some subtlety in my electro bangers. This one’s got it in spades, delivering the goods but also not whacking you over the head with obvious dubstep drops. Great stuff here.
3. “Meridian” – Zola Blood. A really accessible, highly stylized indie-rock tune that has major radio appeal. ZB could be a crossover.
4. “Sound the Alarm” – QVALIA. Not to be confused with the post-rock band Qualia, which I enjoy as well. QVALIA throws down (another) radio-ready tune with fuzzed out, ominous bass synths, quirky soprano synths, and rhythms some familiar rhythms to pull it all together.
1. “Animals” – In-Flight Safety. Here’s a slick, Brit-pop-influenced pop-rock track. That’s one of the most enjoyable pieces of guitar-led work I’ve heard in a while.
2. “Seascape” – Upperfields. Genre labels are kinda useless here, as some mix of indie-rock, indie-pop, synths, artsy landscape-y work, and straight up ’80s jams come together to make this irresistible track.
3. “Bird of Prey” – Natalie Prass. Perky soprano vocals dance over an old-school, chilled-out soul/motown backdrop. I think of 1970s New York neighborhoods, kids on the front steps.
4. “Mirrors (I)” – Sister Speak. There was that time in the ’80s where pop-rock females could be really introspective and deep while still maintaining a connection to groove. Sister Speak is all about that time period. Not that this sounds like the ’80s. But it could live there, maybe.
5. “Deepend” – Mister Lies. Lush, emotive, swishy bedroom electro? SIGN ME UP BRO.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.